by Florian Sohnke
Few men living in the 1980s could legitimately claim closeness to Adolf Hitler; fewer could profess an abiding friendship. Deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess prevailed as both throughout the Nazi madman’s rise to the chancellorship of Germany in 1933 and eventual seizure of power as absolute dictator in 1934.
Increasingly marginalized after the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, Hess, who unlike fellow Nazi henchmen Martin Bormann, Herman Goering, Heinrich Himmler and the cast of Wehrmacht brass, did not possess a powerful sway over the Nazi dictator. Frustrated at his reduced role as the war ground on, Hess attempted to drudge his way back into Berlin’s corridors of power by means of what remains one of the strangest expeditions of the Second World War, a one-way flight to Scotland to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1894 to wealthy parents, Hess studied at boarding school in Germany and Switzerland before enlisting in the German army after the outbreak of the First World War. Engaged in battle at Verdun, Hess was wounded, spent one month recuperating and was returned to the front in Romania. Wounded two additional times, Hess was withdrawn from battle and treated at hospital in Alexandersbad. While recuperating a second time for more serious injuries, Hess determined to enroll in flying school. Qualifying as a pilot in late 1918, Hess saw no action, the war ended and he was discharged from the service in December 1918.
Enrolling in the University of Munich to study geopolitics, Hess soon became involved with the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) after hearing the rantings of a little-known Austrian-Bavarian politician, Adolf Hitler.
Increasing his involvement beyond peddling flyers on the street corner, Hess cultivated a friendship with Hitler and quickly became his fellow World War I veteran’s close confidant. Jailed with Hitler after the failed Munich Putsch in 1923, Hitler named Hess his personal secretary in 1925 and rewarded the peculiar Hess his deputy when Hitler assumed the chancellorship in 1933.
Despite Hess’ proximity to Hitler, his role never included either any key post or a position at crucial war-planning meetings. As hostilities expanded, Hess grew exasperated as his role was reduced to a mere bystander to events as they unfolded.
Determined to excite the Fuehrer, the ambitious Hess plotted a trip to broker a cessation of hostilities between the Nazi state and the UK. Departing Bavaria in a specially-modified Bf-110 in the late afternoon of May 10, Hess flew north toward the North Sea, banked west at a consistent altitude of 5,000 feet to thwart British radar.
Six hours later, after successfully evading the RAF, Hess, navigating by stars, climbed to 6,000 feet over South Lanarkshire, Scotland, the target of his voyage, Dungavel House, the winter lodge of the Duke of Hamilton. Parachuting to the ground, Hess was confronted by farm owner David MacLean, who escorted the injured Hess to his home. Identifying himself as Hauptmann Albert Horn, Hess continued with the masquerade until taken into custody by Home Guard and brought to an interrogation center where he repeatedly insisted to meet with Douglas Douglas-Hamilton, the 14th Duke of Hamilton, with whom Hess wanted to negotiate a peace between the UK and Nazi Germany.
Informed of Hess’ flight by a pre-arranged letter, Hitler went into a hysterical fit, ordered Hess stripped of offices and titles, ordered him shot if he returned to Germany and issued hundreds of orders to have faith-healers and occultists, with or without connection to Hess, arrested.
Hess eventually met with Hamilton, appealed for a peace with the Duke, who then briefed Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Unable to convince his British captors of the utility of his mission, Hess was taken to Buchanan Castle in Scotland where he was imprisoned. Following a suicide attempt, Hess was moved to the Tower of London and eventually to Mytchett Place in Surrey where he remained for the duration of the war.
Tried at Nurnberg as a major offender, Hess was slapped with a life sentence and hung himself at Spandau Prison in 1987, aged 93, having spent half his life behind bars. Despite pleas from the United States, Great Britain and France to free the aged crackpot on humanitarian grounds, the Soviet Union consistently vetoed his release.